Canton McKinley 6-foot, 200-pound stalwart running back Lameir Garrett broke off a 16-yard carry as the host Bulldogs were sniffing out a potential 21-7 lead midway through the second quarter of a playoff opener against Solon on Friday night.
The visiting Comets (8-3) were supplying McKinley (9-2) optimal field position on three straight possessions, and the Bulldogs were taking advantage of it during the Division I, Region 1 quarterfinal at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Stark County.
With McKinley set up at first-and-10 at Solon’s 13-yard line after that 16-yard pickup by Garrett, a Western Michigan offeree and reigning first-team all-Ohioan, the Bulldogs were primed to capitalize on a 55-yard field.
While Garrett was doing his thing with 86 yards on a dozen carries at that point in the game, the Bulldogs’ aerial attack was also working behind 6-foot-2 junior quarterback Elijah Wesley’s 82 yards passing and more completions to come.
“(Garrett) is a very good back, for sure,” Solon 17th-year head coach Jim McQuaide said. “But they threw the ball more than they have in any game, and they had some big plays throwing the ball. But it was a back-and-forth game, and it could have gone either way. They just made a couple more plays than we did.
“Our guys were in it right up until the end, and we came out strong, played well in the middle, and things just didn’t go our way. It’s a tough one, for sure.”
While McKinley had all the momentum at the midpoint of the second quarter, the Bulldogs would have to score two unanswered touchdowns in the final six minutes of the game to come away the 29-25 victors.
After Solon held McKinley three-and-out to open the game, the Comets struck first on a nine-play, 62-yard drive that featured a 32-yard run up the middle by 205-pound junior running back Khalil Eichelberger, before junior quarterback Pat McQuaide dialed up senior receiver Grant McCurry on a crisscross pattern for a 6-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead with 6:29 to go in the first quarter.
But McKinley answered on a 50-yard field, thanks to a 27-yard kickoff return, that featured the Bulldogs’ overcoming a first-and-25 series from a personal foul, before Garrett found the end zone on a 5-yard, bounce-to-the-outside carry with 1:57 to go in the opening frame.
After a fourth-and-17 punt by Solon, McKinley made use of a 60-yard field with a three-play drive that resulted in Garrett’s 23-yard, reverse-the-field touchdown run for a 14-7 Bulldog lead with 11:49 left in the half.
Then, after a fourth-and-10 punt by Solon resulted in more good field possession for McKinley, Garrett was fixing to set the Bulldogs up for more on that previously mentioned 16-yard carry down to the Solon 13-yard line.
But the ensuing snap was fumbled by Wesley, who, instead of diving on it, tried to pick it up, but Solon 190-pound senior defensive lineman Wes Whitham had already busted through the line and dove on the pigskin for his second fumble recovery of the season at the 18-yard line. Later in the game, Whitham also forced a Garrett fumble.
“He’s done a good job all year,” McQuaide said. “He’s a perfect example of a senior that’s been in the program his whole career and had a huge playoff game for us, stepped up and made some big plays. We had other guys who did that. And once the sting of the game slipping away gets over, we’ll be able to recognize a great senior class that’s leaving and get ready to move on.”
Six plays later, the Comets again got behind the sticks at third-and-23 on a holding penalty, but McCurry came out of the slot on a quick drag route, signal-caller McQuaide put the ball on the money, and McCurry split a pair of defenders for a 73-yard touchdown. An ensuing two-point conversion failed, and Solon trailed, 14-13, with 3:03 left in the half.
But thanks to that timely turnover, Solon trailed by just one point rather than two possessions at intermission. Solon senior defensive backs Dominic McGhee and Cam Fuller sandwiched an intended receiver in the end zone for a pass breakup on McKinley’s final play of the second quarter.
“I think (McCurry) just played the way he’s played all year,” McQuaide said of the 73-yard touchdown. “I mean, he’s the first 1,000-yard receiver in the history of the school. And he’s played on defense the entire year also. So, he’s definitely one of our top guys, was a three-year starter and is just part of that senior class of guys making plays that we’re going to miss and have to replace.”
McCurry would finish the night with five catches for 93 yards to finish his senior year with 70 receptions for 1,071 yards with 12 touchdowns.
McQuaide finished the night 15-of-21 passing for 248 yards with four touchdowns to conclude his junior campaign with 2,252 yards passing on a 67 percent completion rate for 24 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
And Eichelberger concluded his junior campaign with 1,100 yards rushing on 187 carries, or 5.9 yards per carry, for 11 touchdowns.
“It’s the first time in the history of the program we had a 2,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher,” coach McQuaide said. “So, those are some pretty high standards that guys have set for future guys.”
On Solon’s opening drive of the third quarter, a forward pitch from McQuaide to senior receiver Greg Parries on a sweep resulted in a 21-yard gain that set the Comets up in the red zone.
Two plays later, McQuaide was forced out of the pocket on the run and delivered a 19-yard touchdown toss to senior receiver Ethan Wong for a 19-14 Solon lead – another two-point attempt failed – with 7:20 to go in the frame.
“Well, he’s made some big plays like that,” coach McQuaide said of quarterback McQuaide keeping his eyes downfield on the pressure. “He had a big one in the Strongsville game. And he made one later (against McKinley).
“And I think that’s the key to being a successful quarterback, is never giving up on a play and trying to find a way to make something happen. And they jumped Grant McCurry on that play, and then Ethan Wong was open in the back, and he was able to see that, and that gave us the lead.”
McKinley drove 66 yards down to the Comet 22 on the ensuing possession, but Solon’s Whitham knocked the pigskin loose from Garrett, and 205-pound senior linebacker RJ Howard recovered it on the 25-yard line.
On McKinley’s next possession, the Bulldogs returned to the red zone, but a third-down toss was broken up by sophomore linebacker Jakob Oldenburg, and then Solon turned them over on downs at the 19-yard line.
The Comets responded on a six-play drive that featured an 18-yard sweep by Parries and then a 37-yard toss over the middle from McQuaide to Parries to set the first-and-goal table at the 6-yard line.
Two plays later, Solon executed a fake handoff to the right, and then lefty McQuaide rolled out to the left and tossed a 5-yard score to 200-pound senior tight end Jack Westrich for his first touchdown of the season and a 25-14 Comet lead with 7:34 to play.
Parries finished the night with five catches for 90 yards to up his senior campaign total to 47 receptions for 539 yards with five touchdowns.
“He’s another example of a two-sport guy,” McQuaide said of Parries, who is a Division I state-podium sprinter in track. “I think he carried that confidence over into the football season and just got better every week. He was a very dangerous guy by all the plays he made.”
But McKinley is the No. 4 seed in the region for a reason.
Solon 6-foot-4, 235-pound defensive end Najee Story and McCurry combined to put a tackle for loss on Garrett to force a third-and-5 on the Bulldogs’ ensuing series, but signal-caller Wesley dialed up junior receiver Terrell Dillworth on a slant route across the middle for a 51-yard touchdown to cut McKinley’s deficit, 25-22, with 5:45 remaining.
The Comets went three-and-out, and then the Bulldogs went back to work on an 80-yard drive that featured a 34-yard catch by junior Xavier Black in blanket coverage. Two plays later, Garrett scored his 24th touchdown of the season on a 9-yard run for McKinley’s 29-25 lead with 1:30 to play. Garrett finished with 30 carries for 182 yards, while Wesley was 12-of-19 passing for 245 yards.
“They’re a good team,” said McQuaide, whose Comets were on the other end of fourth-quarter comebacks twice this season. “You know, we took the lead, then they took the lead, and we took the lead again – it was just fighting back and forth. There were just a couple things at the end that they made a few more plays than we did.”
On Solon’s final do-or-die drive, quarterback McQuaide delivered another on-the-run pass, this time to Eichelberger, for a 27-yard gain to midfield, before a holding penalty pushed the Comets back to their own 43 for a third-and-17 play.
McQuaide delivered a 15-yard toss to Wong, who attempted a hook-and-ladder lateral to Parries, who would have had a clear path to the end zone for the final 42 yards of the play, but the exchange was fumbled, and McKinley recovered it at its own 44-yard line with 38 seconds remaining to hang on for the 29-25 victory.
“That’s a play that we work on every week,” coach McQuaide said. “It was third down, so it seemed like kind of an unsuspecting time to call it. We just misplayed the lateral. But, you’re right. If we would have caught it, it would have been our fastest guy running down the field, and there was nobody there to catch him. So, if you watch that play, that’s how close we were to turning it around with 38 seconds to go.”